Clear communication is key in any relationship, but it’s hard to know what you actually need to communicate. As the years go by, expectations change, patience wavers, and we use fewer words to convey our needs and feelings. But our longest relationships need more thorough communication to survive.
Think about a parent and a child. I love my mother, but I expect more from our relationship than my acquaintances. I have little patience when she misunderstands me repetitively and I don’t always tell her what I need in clear language. When I perceive her as unhelpful or negative, I can feel like exploding!
Now think about a romantic partner. We choose our partners for the connection we share and times when we feel they understand us. Partners can know us better than some of our blood relatives. So what happens when we get into an argument with our partner?
Typically, all we really want is to know we’re connected to our partners, for them to say, “Yes, I’m still here for you. I still love you.” We want a hug, a kiss, a sign they’ll show up when we need them the most. But we’ve learned not to ask for those things because it makes us feel vulnerable. But if this is the person you love, someone you want to spend the rest of your life with, then they’re the perfect person to share your vulnerability with.
Phrasing and emphasis are also important to ensuring clear communication. Often we focus on demands and the negative aspects of disagreements in order to keep our vulnerabilities from showing. Instead of saying “You need to come home on time so we can eat dinner together. Why are you so careless?” try “I miss eating dinner and sharing my day with you. At times I’m hurt when you stay at work too long because it feels like you’re choosing work over me and our time together.” Finding and expressing the underlying emotional conflict can help partners understand how much they value their relationship and gives them a path toward reconciling disagreements through reestablishing connections and continued emotional investment in each other.
The next time you have a disagreement with your partner or just feel disconnected from them, ask yourself these questions:
What just happened?
Did your partner not text you goodnight? Did you argue over dinner plans? Is this a repeating argument? If so, you may have an unmet need (words of affirmation, quality time, etc.). This is an opportunity to explore your relationship expectations and how your relationship fits those expectations. Remember, sometimes our expectations are reasonable, and at other times they are not.
How am I feeling inside?
Anger and frustration can be secondary emotions (a reaction you have to another emotion). A primary emotion may be driving that anger and frustration. If you have trouble finding the right words, think about which emoji you would use if you wanted to text your best friend about your feelings. (Still having difficulty describing your emotion? Click [here] for an extensive list). Naming our emotions can help us understand what we might need from our partners.
How can I express this to my partner without using blaming or criticizing language?
This is an opportunity to share vulnerability accurately with your partner. Remember, it’s not about placing blame on them or yourself. Reconnecting and finding a solution together is the essence of reconciliation, and it takes clear and calm communication to succeed.
We’re constantly growing and changing as people, both physically and emotionally. Relationships are the same, and sometimes we need to find or create opportunities to reacquaint ourselves with lost or loose connections. For help, try exploring the questions in the Gottman Institute’s Love map.
A shared vocabulary and understanding of supplemental information can be a map for finding common ground. Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages is a great start for ways to express and reciprocate needs and wants in any relationship.
Most fights are a protest over emotional disconnection. In Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson shows how attachment styles play out in relationships as “demon dialogues,” as well as tips for being more accessible, responsive, and engaged with your partner.
Author: Angela Izmirian, Ph.D.
Angela is a licensed psychologist at Portland Psychotherapy. Her specialties include trauma/abuse, relationship issues, couples therapy, ethnic minority issues, body image, loss/grief, depression, anxiety, transgender assessments, and sexual orientation & gender identity exploration.